Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Buzzing about brokers: knowledge brokers reach across silos

By Catherine Fisher

Early in December I found myself in the unusual situation of being in a room full of people talking about knowledge brokering at a conference entitled "Bridging the gap between research, policy and practice: the importance of intermediaries (knowledge brokers) in producing research impact" * organised by the ESRC Policy and Research Genomics forum .

The event brought together people from UK universities, NGOs, public bodies ranging from health to education and a sprinkling of upbeat Canadians. The development sector was well represented, with DFID the best represented of UK government departments, perhaps reflecting the emphasis placed on evidence-based policy and research impact by DFID itself and within development sector more broadly.

It was the first time I had attended a conference of this kind in the UK so I was unsure what to expect. We know that knowledge about knowledge brokering seems to be silo-ed, not crossing between sectors. There are also differences in terms used to describe this kind of work. So as a presenter I was nervous I would be stating the obvious to a crowd who knew far more than I did. As conversation and coffee flowed, my fears were allayed: I had a lot to learn but, as I reflect below, the debates in the development sector I have been involved in are not miles away from debates elsewhere and in fact have something to add.

I presented as part of a panel exploring Knowledge Brokering in Development Contexts, alongside Kirsty Neman from INASP, Ajoy Datta from ODI and Matthew Harvey from DFID ( All presentations are available on the conference webpage, our session was 3E).

Here I share 5 of my reflections from the event:

The term "knowledge brokering" encompasses a wide range of action
I was not the only person to reflect that the term "knowledge brokering" was being used differently by different people.  Many people were using "knowledge brokering" to describe what I understand to be “research communication” that is, trying to ensure a piece of research is effectively communicated so that it has impact. This is in contrast to how I understand knowledge brokering, which I see as about helping to ensure that people are able to access research when they need it and that decision-making processes are informed by a wide range of research.  Put simply,  it's the difference between seeking to change a policy or practice to reflect the findings of a piece of reserach (research impact)  as opposed to seeking to change the behaviours of those in policy processes so that they draw on a wide range of research (evidence informed policy). There are of course grey areas between these extremes, for example, knowledge brokers within universities who seek to ensure that the knowledge of that university is mobilised for the community in which they are located: the Knowledge Mobilisation Unit at York University in Canada is a great example of this kind of practice that effectively sits between the extremes I have described.

Why we need labels (even if we hate talking about them)
Which brings me to my next point! People resent the term "knowledge brokering" as much as they resent talking about labels: for an interesting debate about the value of a label see KMBeing blog. Personally, I feel that without a term to describe this kind of work we would be unable to come together to discuss it (what would you call the conference/network?!). Conversely if we use the same term to discuss totally different things we risk confusing rather than clarifying our work.  The summary of the Knowledge Brokers Forum discusssion about terms and concepts is a good attempt to clarify and understand terms.  I still feel that language is the main tool we have to communicate our ideas and that it matters!

Consideration of power and politics: development sector has something to add
I was a little nervous that the debate about knowledge brokering would be very advanced, and the insights I shared in my presentation would be stating the obvious. Yet this did not seem to be the case, many of the issues raised during plenary and earlier sessions were familiar (e.g. pros and cons of the policy brief as a communications tool, how to motivate researchers to communicate their work, etc). The presentations from development sector raised two areas in particular that did not appear in other presentations I attended. Firstly, an attempt to understand politics with big and small “p”: looking at the contexts and motivations around decision-making. Secondly, a consideration of power and equity within knowledge brokering and asking “whose knowledge counts?”

What is a good knowledge broker? A fleet-footed, cheerleading, creative therapist! 
Image credit: Mick Duncan

A highlight for me was the presentation by David Phipps (York Uni) and Sarah Morton (Centre for Research on Family and Relationships) exploring the qualities of a good knowledge broker (pdf). From their experience it is someone who is fleet-footed, a cheerleader, creative, and a therapist. That is they have soft skills or competencies rather than specific technical capacities (although they will need these too!) plus a passion for the area, tact, negotiation and commitment. Like David and Sarah, I think the soft skills of knowledge brokers are key;  a paper I wrote last year entitled Five Characteristics of Effective Intermediary Organisations (PDF) explored how these soft skills can be supported and enabled at an organisational level.

Why don’t knowledge brokers practice what they preach?
As part of a devastating critique of the ESRC “Pathways to Impact” toolkit, Dr Simon Pardoe pointed out how little reference it made to evidence from social science that is relevant to the art and science of effective knowledge brokering. This observation that knowledge brokering somehow has no need to be evidence-based itself has emerged a number of times, for example, in the summary of the Knowledge Brokers Forum discussion which recognised the need for “greater linking of theory and practice”. I wonder whether the hybrid nature of the role means there are so many potential bodies of knowledge to draw on that people don’t draw on any! Sarah Morten and David Phipps talked of their practical ways of addressing this through “practice what you preach” Community of Practice and “learning days” respectively. They have a forthcoming paper to watch out for.

Any of these areas could be a blog posting, a paper or indeed a PhD themselves – I have just skimmed the surface of a great day. I hope the enthusiasm generated and connections formed will build towards greater understanding of the theory and practice of knowledge brokering.

Archive of  tweets posted from the conference : contains some interesting thoughts and links to resources.

• The long titles of these events reflect the difficulty of describing them and the lack of shared language – check out the conference I organised in collaboration with HSRC in 2008 which laboured under the title “Locating the Power of In-between : how research brokers and intermediaries support evidence-based pro-poor policy and practice"